On June 25th, the musical Oracle of the Northwest, Modest Mouse band leader Isaac Brock delivered his latest take on our universal condition with The Golden Casket. Unlike many artists’ recent releases that shake their heads over our society’s prognosis Brock, not usually the cheeriest of diagnosticians, declares there is still some hope for the patient. The Golden Casket combines legendary Modest Mouse sonics with raw punk pacing and experimental studio science to come up with one of their strongest efforts to date.
The Golden Casket was produced by Dave Sardy and Jacknife Lee and was recorded in LA and Modest Mouse’s Portland, Oregon studio. Initially, Brock didn’t want to touch a guitar for the recordings, but that didn’t last long. The sonic canvas was soon filled with identifiable guitar riffs, wonky synths and found sounds. Brock has said that recording the release ended up being way too much fun. The fun Modest Mouse had recording leaks through continuously harkening back to the substance taking days of songs like “The Good Times are Killing Me”, which seemed to reel off spontaneously into classic tracks for the band.
The Golden Casket opens with an engaging Mid New Wave track “F**k Your Acid Trip”, where the narrative is reality mugging an acid trip. The wonky effect delivers the atmosphere of the selection and makes for a great opener. “We Are Between” continues Brock’s reoccurring theme of humanity being on a journey between the dust and the stars. Additionally, Brock, ever the wordsmith with an uncommon ability to turn a phrase to make one think, stresses how lucky we are to be on Earth. The track had me with the fantastic Johnny Marr inspired guitar and Cure bass line. Brock continues on this optimistic track with “We’re Lucky”, which is a love song to being in this time and place. Brock gets quite lyrically prosaic with lines like, “It takes a lifetime ever to figure out that there is no lifetime ever to figure it out.” This classic Modest Mouse rumination rolls out over a beautiful midtempo accompaniment.
“Walking and Running” continues on another Brock topic that he examined closely on 2015’s “Strangers to Ourselves”, which is the spending of our lives chasing after that which does not work, the idea of having to constantly be in motion doing something and talking things to death. This idea of frenetic motion for the sake of frenetic motion is further emphasized by the bouncing sonic of the track. “Wooden Soldiers” follows this ethos with lyrics like “ Making plans in the sands as the tide rolls in and Naming the boat after someone so when it sinks we know who to blame.” all of which calls out the foolishness of ideas like “building back better” after Covid and the cons being sold by both sides of the political spectrum. Brock concludes that just surviving the daily struggle should be enough in the trippy mantra that ends the track.
“Transmitting Receiving” wraps up this section with Brock and the band performing one of his classic list songs. The track starts as a trademark Modest Mouse sonic that then morphs into a Vaporware helium-filled offering as Brock defiantly avers, “Nothing in this world is going to petrify me.”
The next two songs displace a side of Modest Mouse infrequently seen. “The Sun Hasn’t Set Yet” was written during the riots, forest fires and pandemic of the last year. Instead of being a travelogue to the dystopia of the last year, it instead encourages the listener to hold on. Offering hope in this mess, we find ourselves amidst. Brock utilizes wonky keyboards and 80’s sonic sensibilities to stress that not everything will always be the best in our lives.
However, there is still something of value left as we counterintuitively count back from zero. The touching “Lace Your Shoes” then follow this fantastic track is obviously a tribute to the event of his daughter’s birth. The song documents the joys and fear of the impact of being a parent and being completely knocked off one's feet by the love of a child. Brock compiles a list of the good and bad his child will face knowing it is all part of growing up as he identifies his part in helping in this process of creating an adult. Personally, for me, a definite “do not miss track” on the album.
Modest Mouse switches up again with “Never F**k a Spider on the Fly”, which is spectacularly insightful. Brock takes every intellectually challenged troll who enables cancel culture to the task. He champions the idea that everyone should be allowed their opinion. He ridicules the developing idea that it is alright to go to war on Twitter over a sandwich at the deli. Pulling no punches, he reiterates the axiom that “opinions are like assholes; everyone has one”. Lyrically he states, “It doesn’t make what they don’t know right, but they really want you to know” in reference to stated opinions. The edgy goodness of the track makes it a “must be listened to track” and one of my many favourites on the release. “Leave the Light On” again exudes positivity with the idea of being welcomed and being welcoming over an Arcade Fire/Simple Minds anathematic sonic vibe. “Back to the Middle” closes out the recording with a desire that the world head back to the middle ground and not go off the rails with extremes of political partisanship. That nothing can be solved in the isolationism and extremism of either side. This endearing sendoff filled with common sense brings a close to a brilliant effort.
Modest Mouse has always bucked the trend, and with The Golden Casket, they go positive when the rest of the world seems determined to go dystopic. Brock, ever the realist, acknowledges that the world is a shit show, but maybe with the arrival of a child and his growing older, he also realizes there is much to be grateful for in our age. Sonically Brock, along with his compatriots, have found a way to keep the elements that make Modest Mouse such a worthy band intact but also utilizes memorable hooks and their own unique quirkiness to make for an enticing album. Brock, as usual, is one of the best musical wordsmiths of our era, and at the peak of his powers on this release, as he marries his insights to just the right accompaniment. The Golden Casket is probably Modest Mouse’s most accessible album in recent years and a welcomed new release.